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Wilmer Flores is working hard to prove he can play shortstop

Wilmer Flores of the Mets completes a first

Wilmer Flores of the Mets completes a first inning ending double play after forcing out Javier Baez of the Chicago Cubs at Citi Field on Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014. Credit: Jim McIsaac

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Wilmer Flores granted himself only a two-week reprieve.

Even though the baseball season had just ended, he knew he needed to do more, so he returned to his native Venezuela for a stint in winter ball. The games took him across the country, far from family and friends.

When his winter season ended, he reported to Port St. Lucie, Florida. Since Jan. 11, Flores has participated in the Mets' voluntary conditioning program, the second straight year he has surrendered much of his offseason downtime.

But for all of Flores' time and effort, a nagging question continues to hover over the 23-year-old, one that lies at the center of his worth: Can he overcome his physical limitations to function as a major-league shortstop?

"You hear people talking all the time: Is this guy going to be a shortstop? Can he play shortstop? Can he not?" Flores said this past week, the first time he has weighed in on an offseason that has become so much about him. "You know what? I can't listen to that. I want to play the way I've been playing."

Through no fault of his own, Flores has been caught in the crossfire, the target of fans who have grown tired of waiting for a winner. He likely will start at shortstop on Opening Day, an outcome that many regard as a result of the Mets' continued austerity.

Flores' game -- which features a promising bat and limited range in the field -- has prompted debate about his readiness to handle arguably the most important defensive position.

But the Mets have not found an upgrade. The complexion of this quiet offseason has turned up the heat on the criticism.

"I'm not going to say I don't hear things," Flores said. "But I try not to because I know what I can do, man. Honestly, I know what I can do."

Matt Harvey's return will give the talented starting rotation a legitimate front man, and the acquisition of Michael Cuddyer will fill a gaping hole in the outfield. For the first time since 2008, the Mets look to be within reach of a postseason berth.

Except, thus far, the offseason has been defined by what the Mets haven't done. That list by now is familiar: spend money on talent, boost the payroll past the $100-million mark and acquire a long-term solution at shortstop.

With the Mets so close to competing after a brutal six-year stretch on the field, they have left themselves open to criticism for not putting the finishing touches on their offseason.

Publicly, the Mets have emphasized their willingness to stick with Flores. General manager Sandy Alderson and manager Terry Collins have been unwavering in that stance.

Yet the public declarations have been backed by efforts to find an alternative. Just like last season, nothing has materialized.

Flirtation with the Rockies and star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has led to plenty of headlines but little progress toward a trade. The same applies to the Mariners and Brad Miller, a promising young shortstop.

The Mets determined early in the offseason that their answer almost certainly would not come via free agency. The principle still holds. That leaves Flores in the same unenviable position that Ruben Tejada was in a year ago: starter by default.

Tejada eventually played his way out of the job, which fell to Flores, even though his lack of range in the minors prompted the Mets to move him from shortstop after the 2011 season.

"He hasn't played there," captain David Wright said. "He was playing third, he was playing some second, then all of a sudden they wanted to throw him at shortstop at the big-league level. Obviously, there's an adjustment period."

Yet Flores held his own, unspectacular but steady. As expected, his relatively bulky frame kept him from covering the same ground as his counterparts, but he generally handled routine plays.

Said Wright: "I'm not saying he's going to be Omar Vizquel at shortstop." He also noted that Flores won't need to be as long as he makes good on what scouts have long considered a potential standout bat.

Indeed, for all the talk about his glove, the key to the Flores experiment at shortstop rests with his bat.

"If I were wagering -- we are at Vegas Night tonight -- I would wager that he's going to have a better year offensively than I would say the majority of shortstops in baseball," Wright said this past week from his annual charity event to benefit a children's hospital in Norfolk, Virginia.

Flores hit .251/.286/.378 with six homers in 78 games last season and ended with a flourish his final month. In his last 24 games, he hit .287/.320/.500.

Though Flores doesn't pass the eye test at shortstop -- and his range will never be comparable to that of a typical shortstop -- some statistical evidence has emerged that Flores won't be the calamity that some fans dread.

Of course, those projections hinge upon whether he can produce enough at the plate to cover up what he could give up in the field.

In that regard, Flores believes that the work he's put in this offseason will be worthwhile.

"I'm trying to do what I can," he said. "I'm working hard. I'm working really hard. At the end of the day, if things don't go well, you know what? I did my best. There's nothing else I can do but work hard and try to get better."

After more than a month at the team's facility in Port St. Lucie, Flores' next journey will take him back to Venezuela for his first break since October. He hopes to recharge in time for spring training, where he intends to prove he's equal to the task of sticking at shortstop.

"It has paid off," Flores said of his efforts. "Not everyone can play shortstop in the big leagues. I think I did a pretty good job at short. I was impressed with what I did. I just want to do it again."

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